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‘Teletubbies’ Was a Fever Dream, But the Weirdest Parts Happened Off-Set

From bizarre on-set dramas to salacious tabloid reports of queer propaganda, the story of ‘Teletubbies’ is anything but innocent

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

In late 1995, British-Jamaican comedian John Simmit attended a mystery audition in central London. “We all had to run around this big dance studio,” he tells me, smiling at the memory. “I think everyone else was either at or had just come out of drama school, because everyone was so keen and full of technique. I was just walking around as this bemused, experienced comedian, like, ‘Whatever, sure I’ll pretend to be a tree!’”

It was this laid back, tongue-in-cheek attitude that caught the eye of Anne Wood, founder of independent children’s TV studio Ragdoll Productions. The company had found minor successes with shows like Tots TV and Rosie & Jim, the latter of which was a televised puppet show that centered on two dolls living on a boat (they may have been siblings or may have been fucking, depending on who you ask). Researchers had meticulously detailed the successes and failures of each show Ragdoll created, using this knowledge to brainstorm a new show called Teleteddies. After the audition, Simmit discovered he was the first person cast for the show, but he was told to hold tight while the bosses fleshed out the details.

In 1996, Ragdoll found out that Teleteddies was already copyrighted, so the name changed to Teletubbies. Just a year later, it would become the biggest children’s TV show in the world.

The premise for Teletubbies was simple enough, but it sounds batshit crazy on paper. The show revolves around four space-age toddlers with televisions in their stomachs, who interact with weird shit that comes into their bizarre little world, Tubbyland. There’s Tinky Winky, a gigantic purple dude with an upside-down triangle on his head and a dainty, red purse that he carries with him at all times. Dipsy is acid-green with a rod-straight antenna protruding from his head, often covered by a zebra-print top hat. Laa-Laa is sunflower-yellow with an adorable, high-pitched voice, whereas Po is the ostensible baby of the group. 

These hulking, mythical toddlers — who are, on average, around six-and-a-half feet tall — live in a house run by a talking vacuum cleaner, Noo-Noo. They eat Pepto Bismol-pink “tubby custard,” which squirts out of a machine like extraterrestrial cum. In the center of the sun is the face of a fucking baby. It’s a psychedelic fever dream of a show, but one that resonated with millions — if not billions — of kids worldwide.

To cast actors who could truly nail these parts, Ragdoll held numerous auditions between late 1995 and early 1996. Gradually, the team started coming together. Simmit was chosen to play Dipsy. The role of Laa-Laa went to Nikky Smedley, an English actress and choreographer who’s since gone on to write a how-to guide for children’s education. Po was snapped up by Pui Fan Lee, a seasoned actress who made a name for herself in the early 1990s by writing and starring in a one-woman play, Short, Fat, Ugly and Chinese, which was based on her own personal experiences of being raised by immigrant parents who ran a Chinese restaurant in Nottingham, England. Tabloid headlines scream that she later “starred in lesbian porn,” but the truth is less salacious — she simply carried on acting after the Teletubbies, and filmed a sex scene for a 1999 British comedy series, Metrosexuality. As for the sun-baby — Jessica Smith — she’s now “all grown up.” A former student of dance education, she stays out of the limelight but made Daily Mail headlines last year for — shocker! — posting a selfie in a body-con dress.

The role of Tinky Winky proved a little more difficult to fill. In early 1996, comedian Dave Thompson reluctantly dragged himself to an “all-day workshop” in central London, which turned out to be a Teletubbies audition. “I had a stand-up comedy gig in another part of the country later that night, so I was less enthusiastic when I realized,” he laughs. “I sort of resented doing the audition!”

Ragdoll asked everyone auditioning to prepare “a piece about their childhood,” so Thompson promised himself he’d work on it during the commute. But rush hour and a packed train complicated his plans. Totally unprepared, he arrived to the audition in “a red leotard and tights” — leftover from his days of studying theater — and decided to “improvise a piece for children” based loosely on a comedy routine he created to poke fun at postmodern dance. “When they called my name, I rolled over the floor into the center of the stage and did a send-up of a children’s TV presenter. “Hello children,” he mimics in a singsong voice. “Do you know what I am? I’m a seed, and I’m going to grow into a lovely tree!”

The producers were interested by his brief, zany showing, but asked him to come back for a follow-up audition to prove he wasn’t just a “skin performer” — i.e., someone who can clown around in costume, but not convincingly act. Eventually, Thompson became the final piece of the Teletubbies puzzle.

1996 was largely spent filming and rehearsing the show, but performers had to wait months before being introduced to their huge, heavy costumes. “The costumes were late to arrive, because they had to be made in America with this special, furry fabric,” says Thompson. In early rehearsals, Simmit says the cast were made to dress up in oversized sumo suits, to give them a taste of what those beloved, furry costumes would feel like. “It’s like being in a postbox, because your mouth is where the eyes of the costume are,” he explains.

When Thompson received his purple Tinky Winky outfit, his initial reaction was panic. “The big, disturbing thing was that the heads were very heavy, so I was worried about damaging my spine,” he recalls. “I remember that no amount of money was enough that I’d agree to risk permanently damaging my neck. I said that to Anne, and she replied: ‘Are you talking yourself out of a job?’ That was the beginning of the end of this sweet woman I had seen up until that point. It was the first time I saw her ruthless side.”

During the months of waiting for the costumes to show up, the cast were told to watch recordings of kids viewing Ragdoll’s existing TV shows, and watch for their reactions. “There’s a lot of money to be made in children’s television, and Ragdoll knew they could make these programs and sell them all over the world because puppets transcend race,” explains Thompson. “Kids in Iran, India and China won’t see these characters and think, ‘Oh, they’re white people,’ so Teletubbies is a show that’s relatable to anybody.” The multi-racial casting is subtly acknowledged, though — Dipsy’s face is slightly darker than the other Teletubbies, a small nod to Simmit’s Blackness.

In lieu of actual language, the actors were taught the skill of physical comedy by clowns and comedy veterans. The costumes were a huge help — each character had a huge, round ass that created a kind of comedic waddle whenever they ran, and the sheer size of the suits made clowning around on-set look even more surreal.

Armed with these new skills, the cast began recording the first season in 1996. “We worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, wearing these huge suits that were heavy,” recalls Simmit. “They probably weighed about 20 kilograms [44 pounds] each!” The Teletubbies ran up and down hills, flailing their oversized body parts with wild abandon. It looks like a great time on-screen, but Simmit says they had to overdub the audio inside a professional studio once a month. Apparently, the uncut, original audio recordings of Teletubbies are filled with actors screaming “Fuck!” and panting heavily as they drag their sweaty, cumbersome costumes around. As for Noo Noo, the famous vacuum cleaner, it’s actually a tiny vehicle being driven by a real-life dude, Mark Dean, his limbs packed inside as he whizzes around causing chaos.

Six grueling months later, filming wrapped. As the first season neared its completion, Thompson began hearing rumors that one of the bosses at the BBC — the network that commissioned the show — didn’t like his performance. He later asked the boss in question about it at a taping, and was basically told the claim was bullshit. Thompson became convinced that Anne Wood, the head honcho, had lied, and was on a silent mission to edge him out of the show. His suspicions were later confirmed, when he was told his voiceover wasn’t a good fit.

At the wrap party on the final day of filming, Thompson received a letter from the Ragdoll accountant informing him his depiction of Tinky Winky was “not acceptable,” with no further explanation. “I went in to tell the other actors,” he remembers. “We’d been working together for months, so we were like family. I told them I’d been sacked, and just burst into tears. I got in the car and drove back to London. That was it.” An American actor was called in to dub over Thompson’s voice, but his actual body acting remains in the first season of the show and in all further seasons, due to Thompson being featured in the generic introduction footage. Either way, his Teletubbies days were over before the show even aired. 

When Teletubbies was finally released in 1997, the success was overwhelming. As a result, Simmit tells me British tabloids resorted to intrusive tactics to spin bullshit stories about the actors during what’s known as “silly season” — the summer months, when politicians leave for vacation and newspapers need other, dumber stories to write. Reporters flocked to the actors’ houses, desperate for some kind of scoop. “They just put quotes into the mouths of your neighbors,” says Simmit. “I lived next door to this elderly couple, and the husband was quoted as saying about me: ‘Oh, he’s a nice lad, but he likes to play his music, you know, that ‘jungle’ stuff.” (Jungle is a subgenre of music inspired by reggae and rave.) “The neighbor was mortified,” Simmit recalls. “This was obviously invented by tabloid reporters who thought, ‘Oh, a Black man with dreadlocks, he must be into jungle.’ It was racist reporting. Who knows? I might have been into Cliff Richard or the Beatles!”

The show ran for four years, during which it was screened in — according to Simmit — 121 countries. The Teletubbies even had a hit single, and babies worldwide lost their shit at the sight of these weird, wonderful beings. Controversy, however, arrived in 1999, when televangelist Jerry Falwell, a vocal supporter of apartheid in South Africa, claimed that Tinky Winky was gay, and that the show was therefore promoting homosexuality to innocent kids. Even now, queer writers claim Tinky Winky as canonically queer. Thompson says he once heard the show was banned in Kazakhstan, as the president had decried Tinky Winky as a “gay pervert.”

“I’m straight,” says Thompson, clearly bemused by the controversy. “Apparently the triangle is a gay symbol, and purple is the gay pride color, but the red purse was the main grounds for Falwell’s claims.” Tinky Winky is also light on his feet for a seven-foot martian, but Thompson says this was a deliberate choice — historically, when fat comics are dainty and light on their feet, the visual contrast makes for hilarious viewing. Plus, Thompson had studied aikido, an ancient Japanese martial art that teaches fighters to be “light on their feet, that way it’s like your opponent is fighting a piece of wind.” This lightness is read as camp by determined gay fans, who, again, proudly claim Tinky Winky as their queer icon.

As proof of the show’s legacy, there are countless other fan theories online. Just last year, the Teletubbies brand proposed a collaboration with Lil Nas X and were described as “little gay demons” as a result. Along these lines, I asked Twitter users for the weirdest theories they’ve ever heard, and one anonymous respondant claimed that conservative organization Focus on the Family said that “[Teletubbies] were making kids gay, and that tubby custard was cum and it taught kids to drink cum and love it. Also that it was training for pedophiles, because who doesn’t want to fuck the Teletubbies?” In 2011, a Christian blogger banned her child from watching Teletubbies, summarizing that “Teletubbies are evil pawns from another world, sent by the creepy sky-baby to infiltrate our children’s minds and cause them to gleefully break our necks, or at least drive us insane.”

To entertain himself, Simmit sometimes watches parody videos of Teletubbies dubbed over with different music. “The comments are where the fun really is,” he says. “Some of them are like, ‘Okay, this was clearly satanic!’” As for Thompson, he’s aware the show has found a more recent audience of “people who go out to raves, get home at 6 a.m. and then come down off their ecstasy trips watching the Teletubbies.” 

Thompson leans into these hedonistic, irreverent stories himself — he’s written a semi-autobiographical novel, The Sex Life of a Comedian, set in “a world where louche girls romp in dressing rooms, luxury yachts and drug-fueled orgies.” He keeps it low-key in terms of promotion due to his wholesome, kids’ TV past, but this horny almost-memoir chronicles “the dark side of wealth.” Seemingly, it’s a commentary on the show’s creators, who booted him without warning and covertly removed him from the cast list of later episodes, despite Thompson still being in the “generic” introduction scenes. When Thompson realized he wasn’t being paid for episodes he was technically a part of, he enlisted the aid of a big-shot agent pal, who fought on his behalf to secure repeat payments for him. The plan eventually worked, and “money started flooding into [his] account.”

Now, Thompson has multiple properties, including a swanky, three-story house in Budapest. “I call it the house that Tinky Winky built,” he says with a mischievous giggle. (Sadly, his replacement, actor Simon Shelton, passed away in 2018 on the streets of Liverpool, where he died from hypothermia after years of alcohol abuse.)

Meanwhile, Simmit has been described as a stalwart of Black British comedy — with the money he earned by playing Dipsy, he’s platformed countless Black comedians and fought for a more inclusive industry. Social justice remains a core theme in his work. As we chat, he speaks excitedly about his upcoming musical play Rush, based on a real-life immigration scandal in the U.K. In post-war Britain, immigrants from across the Caribbean (including Simmit’s family) were asked to come to Britain to fill much-needed jobs and to help rebuild the country’s broken economy. In return, they were promised citizenship, yet in 2018 it turned out that the U.K. government had been wrongly detaining them and threatening them with deportation. “We came to the U.K. because we were invited, unlike the British colonizers who took over countries,” Simmit says passionately. 

The success of Teletubbies has partly enabled Simmit and Lee to continue making political statements with their work, and the show more generally nudged the boundaries of some key conversations. In one episode, Dipsy wears a dress — it’s a comedic scene, but one that sends a message of inclusivity nonetheless. The Teletubbies may not have been covert gay provocateurs, but the show was undeniably progressive, rooted in a desire to allow kids from all walks of life to live temporarily in joyful, eccentric fantasy lands. Despite the forward-thinking ideals being steeped in a bizarre, gibberish language, “magic” purses and ominous sun babies, these wacky space-age toddlers helped shape the minds of a millennial generation increasingly accepting of difference. 

“This was an innocent show for toddlers at the end of the day, but if people were seeing themselves reflected in it somehow, then good for them,” Simmit concludes. “The Teletubbies had no race or sexuality — they were meant to be about two years old! — but however people want to interpret the show is fine by me. Just don’t do it with a straight face!”